The American Legion learned at its Washington Conference Monday that the Department of Defense may have to suspend its overseas efforts to recover the remains of servicemembers who died in combat or as prisoners of war.
Johnie E. Webb, deputy to the commander for public relations and legislative affairs, Joint Personnel Accounting Command, told Legionnaires during a meeting of the National Security/Foreign Relations Commission that “if sequestration hits, it may essentially close down a lot of our operations,” because his office’s civilian employees would be forced to take furloughs.
“This is one more important reason that our lawmakers need to avoid sequestration,” said James E. Koutz, national commander of The American Legion. “We are committed to the completion of a full accounting of all American POW/MIA’s and this action could seriously impede progress.”
If automatic budget cuts take effect on March 1, many federal employees will have to take two furlough days per two-week pay period. DoD’s recovery operations last a minimum of 30 days, and federal workers can’t deploy while on furlough.
“So unless we can get an exception to that policy, and let those civilian scientists and others deploy, and then take a string of consecutive days when they get back, unfortunately, we may not be able to do any recovery operations and will be able to do only limited investigation operations,” Webb said.
In Vietnam this year, four joint field activities are planned that will involve 14 U.S. recovery teams and seven from Vietnam. Some sites are still restricted for U.S. personnel, so Vietnamese recovery teams were created and are now conducting operations and cooperating with U.S. teams.
Four joint field activities of 30 days each are scheduled for Laos, but recovery operations had to be suspended in Cambodia because of financial issues; those operations should resume by the third quarter of this year.
In October 2011, the U.S. and North Korean government arranged to conduct searches for remains in 2012. DoD bought 30 brand-new SUVs, trucks, generators and other equipment for the joint endeavor. The first shipment went north, which included all the rice and gasoline supplies.
At that point, Pyongyang decided that joint humanitarian operations were inappropriate, given the fact that U.S. forces were conducting war games in South Korea. That along with North Korea’s recent missile tests, canceled the project; all the equipment remains in storage in South Korea.
DoD reports that it is putting more emphasis on recovering remains from World War II, working harder to identify sites and determine whether recovery teams should go in.
“Burma is a breakthrough,” Webb said, and his office is “getting cooperation from that government, and we should be doing operations in the near future.”
Webb said that 1,653 Americans are still unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. About 180 sites have been identified and “all that work needs to be done. We need to get teams out and excavate those sites and recover those Americans, and we need to continue to investigate - those witnesses are dying every day.”